Tart and Velvety Beet Tonic from Poland

beet kwasI have seldom fermented beets on their own; for some reason these roots, when brined, seem more inclined to grow mold than to sour. But an ample harvest of beets from my garden this year inspired me to try making beet kwas, or kwas burakowy, a popular Polish tonic.

Kwas (or kvass) is a sour, refreshing fermented drink enjoyed throughout eastern Europe. The typical version, made from bread and water, may date to the tenth century. According to the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, kwas made from beets became popular in Poland in the 1920s. Deep red and slightly viscous, it has been traditionally used in a Christmas Eve borscht, but it is also drunk straight as an energy booster.

Today beet kwas enthusiasts make numerous claims about the health benefits of their favorite drink. Beets are full of antioxidants; they help prevent cancer and arteriosclerosis; they are good for colds, weakness, anemia, and recovery from antibiotic use. They support the kidneys and liver. They lower cholesterol; they improve immune function; they contain vitamins A, C, and B (including folic acid) and the minerals iron, potassium, and calcium. Fermenting the beets makes these nutrients more available to the body. Beet kwas “purifies” the blood and the liver, lowers blood pressure, and boosts stamina during exercise.

I can’t vouch for any of these claims, but a crimson vegetable that tastes like dirt has got to be good for you, right? Fermentative bacteria add their own nutrients and balance the dirty taste with lactic and acetic acid. Both the flavor and healthfulness of beet kwas can be enhanced with the seasonings of your choice—for Poles, garlic (always!), allspice, black pepper, sweet bay, fennel, horseradish, carrot, and celery. Americans who have recently discovered beet kwas favor sweet and fruity flavorings—lemon, orange, ginger, and sweet spices.

Finally, you add rye bread. Poles traditionally boost fermentation—even when making cucumber pickles—by laying a stale heel of sourdough rye bread on top of the brine. I hoped that adding a slice of my own homemade sourdough rye would get me sour rather than moldy beet tonic.

I followed the method of Robert and Maria Strybel, Polish-Americans who first published their Polish Heritage Cookery in 1993. Here is my version of their simple recipe:

Kwas Burakowy (Beet Kwas)

1 pound red beets, peeled and sliced thin
1 large garlic clove, chopped
½ teaspoon sugar
1½ teaspoons pickling salt
1 slice sourdough rye bread
5 cups lukewarm water (filtered or boiled, if it has been chlorinated)

Put the beets into a 2-quart jar (I used a mason jar). Add the garlic, sugar, and salt. Place the bread on top, and pour the water over. Cover the jar loosely. (I used a plastic mason-jar lid but screwed it on only part way; the Strybels advise using cheesecloth or a dish towel.) If the beets float to the surface, weight them. (Mine didn’t float, but if they had I would have weighted them with one of my glass candle holders.) Let the jar stand at room temperature.

After four days, begin tasting the liquid. When a pleasant tartness has subdued the dirty taste—for me, this took six days—strain the liquid. (Although neither the Strybels nor other Polish writers whose works I consulted advised this, I squeezed the bread before discarding it. I also saved the sliced beets, to use slivered in salads, although they had lost some of their color.) 

You should have about 1 quart kwas. Pour it into a bottle, cap the bottle, and chill it.

For health, Poles say, drink a cup of beet kwas once or twice a day. Some say to start with just an ounce or two and gradually increase the dose to 8 eight ounces.

I drank a small glass of my kwas each morning before breakfast until the bottle was empty. Although I usually balk at the thought of a chilled drink in the morning, I’ve missed my kwas since running out. Happily, there are still more beets in the garden, ready to harvest and to transform into kwas.

From Ukraine: Beet-Horseradish Relish

tsviklyWhile Robert and I were stocking up on sausage and smoked mackerel at International Meat, a Russian market in Portland, a group of jars in the pickle section caught my eye. Though among them the jars bore several different labels, they were all filled with shredded beets, preserved with vinegar and seasoned mainly with horseradish. I’d never made such a relish before, or even tasted it.

So I went home and did a little research. Called tsvikly, the relish comes from Ukraine, I found out. It’s easy to make. Here is the recipe I settled on:

Ukrainian Beet Relish

1 pound beets, with their rootlets and about 2 inches of their tops
1 ounce peeled horseradish
1 teaspoon dill seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoons black peppercorns
½ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar

In a saucepan, cover the beets with water. Boil them until they are tender throughout. Drain them, and let them cool briefly.

Trim the beets, and rub off their skins. Grate the beets coarsely, using the large holes of a box grater. Grate the horseradish fine; you should have about ¼ cup. Mix the grated beets and horseradish together in a bowl, and then pack the mixture into a pint jar.

In a mortar, crush the dill, coriander, and peppercorns. Combine the spices in a small saucepan with the vinegar, salt, and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the pan, and simmer the liquid for 5 minutes.

Set a tea strainer over the jar of beets, and pour the vinegar mixture through the strainer. The liquid should barely cover the solids. Cap the jar, and let it cool to room temperature. Then put it into the refrigerator, and wait at least a day before sampling the relish.

Makes 1 pint

The horseradish in this relish tastes strong at first, but it mellows after a few days. Otherwise the relish is fairly mild in flavor, though you could of course add more sugar, salt, or spices, or incorporate the spices instead of straining them out. You might also substitute caraway or cumin for the dill.

Tsvikly, I’ve read, is traditionally served at Easter with ham or pork. I think it’s delicious with smoked mackerel, the product that draws me again and again to International Meat.

A Quick Wintertime Refrigerator Relish

What can you do with a few beets, some slowly shriveling apples from last fall’s harvest, and an ever-expanding patch of horseradish? Inspired by a traditional beet-horseradish relish from Russia and a canned beet-apple pickle that I read about somewhere last year, I decided to make a relish of grated beets, apples, and horseradish.

horseradishUsually gardeners dig the transverse roots of horseradish for kitchen use, but my horseradish has apparently reacted to abuse—occasional mowing and a total lack of irrigation or fertilizer of any sort—by running its horizontal roots unusually deep. Fortunately, the young vertical roots are good to eat as well, in winter or early spring, and when you have too many you don’t mind sacrificing some. Here you see a four-headed root ready to burst into spring finery. (I dug many more little roots, so Robert could share them with his pals at work. He looked at me oddly and left for work without them.)

For the quantities here, you’ll need one big or two small beets, and one big or two small apples. I used Fuji apples. Bake the beets whole, in their skins, at 400 degrees F. for about an hour or until they are just tender.

This recipe could be adapted for canning, by adding more vinegar, heating the relish, and putting it through a boiling-water bath. But that would make the relish too liquid and cause the horseradish to lose its delicious pungency. I would prefer to make this relish in small quantities, store it in the refrigerator, and use it up within a few weeks.

Beet-Apple Relish

6 tablespoons cider vinegar
½ pound tart, firm apples, with peels intact
¾ pound beets, baked, cooled, and peeled
1 small piece horseradish root
1 teaspoon pickling salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
1½ teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed

Put the vinegar into a bowl. Coarsely grate the apples around their cores, and add the gratings to the bowl. Coarsely grate the beets; mince any pieces that you can’t grate without risking cut fingers; and add the beet bits to the bowl. Peel the horseradish root; finely grate enough to make 1½ tablespoons; and add the grated horseradish to the bowl. Stir gently. Add the salt, and mince and add the garlic. Toast the mustard and coriander in a small, dry pan until the spices release their aroma and the mustard begins to pop. Grind the spices in a mortar until the coriander pieces are fine, and add the spices to the bowl. (Mustard is much harder to grind than coriander, but you want to leave it mostly whole for texture anyway.) Stir once more, and pack the relish into a pint jar.

beet-apple relishI love this relish for its gentle sweetness (notice that I added no sugar), the bit of heat from the horseradish and mustard, the fragrance of the coriander, and the mild sourness that allows you to heap the relish on other foods without overpowering them. Here you see my lunch of beet-apple relish with pickled herring and sourdough rye bread. It’s a pleasant combination, but every taste of this relish makes me crave corned beef or pastrami. Somehow, my beet-apple relish seems to demand a pairing with spicy salted beef.

Which reminds me: I should corn some beef for St. Paddy’s Day. The relish may not last until then, but I can easily make more. I won’t even have to dig in the horseradish patch again, because all those roots Robert wouldn’t take to work will keep well in the refrigerator for several weeks.